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OCTOBER SKY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Laura Dern
Director:  Joe Johnson
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic, Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  111 Minutes
Release Date:  July 27, 1999

Film ****

In October of 1957, one of the most significant events in modern history took place, when the Soviet Union successfully launched the first man-made satellite into orbit around the earth.  Though it did little more than beep, it truly launched mankind into the modern age, and began a new chapter in the Cold War that would come to be known as the Space Race.  Suddenly, outer space was the new frontier, and it became imperative that Americans stake their claim in it, and fast.

In the opening shots of October Sky, we see the citizens of the little town of Coalwood as the radio broadcasts the news of the eventÖand how nothing changes.  Everybody goes on about their business, which for most is coal mining, while the news of a small object called Sputnik circling overhead didnít seem to matter all that much.  A few, like people everywhere else, did watch the sky and catch a glimpse of it as it soared through the night at unheard of speed and unimaginable height.  But for at least one boy in the town, Homer Hickham, Jr. (Gyllenhaal), the event is an eye opener and a life changing experience.  Suddenly, there was something else out there in his future beside the same coal mine that his father and fatherís father so diligently worked.  There was, indeed, a whole other universe to be explored.

But itís not so easy to dream in a town that hardly ever has dreamed.  The school principal, for example, sees his job as getting the boys ready to take up their positions in the town coal mine.  Every once in a great while, some lucky fellow might perchance to make it out on an athletic scholarship.  The idea that Homer and three of his friends deciding they can build a rocket and win a national science fair is ridiculous, especially considering that one of Homerís worst subjects is math.  Only Miss Riley (Dern), their kind teacher, encourages them to study and work hard, and believes the boys can be the first to escape the town by using their minds.

But one of the problems is Homerís dad (Cooper), one of the mineís managers.  Heís worked his whole life in the mines, putting his life on the line time and time again.  He sees the honor in what he does.  Coal makes energy, and the coal he mines goes into steel production.  What he does helps to build America, which to him, is here on the ground, not in space.  Heís a good man, and not the one-dimensional ogre often associated with these kinds of films.  He loves his son, but figures the sooner the boy realizes his limitations and accepts his life, the better.

This movie follows the underdog makes good formula, but with an interesting twist.  Rather than athletic feats, like the Rocky movies, this film portrays characters trying to beat the odds with brain power.  Considering this is a true story, it makes the experience of viewing the picture all the more extraordinary.  I say it follows a formula, but it shows us a few new things in the process.  The coal mine is a fantastic, claustrophobic set for example, where men have to stoop to walk around.  Itís dark, dusty, and you can almost feel the heat.  We see what a precarious place it is, as well, for the miners chip away on all sides until eventually the tunnels canít support the weight of the earth above any longer, resulting in collapse, and in many cases, serious injury and death.  Homerís fatherís occasional coughing fits remind us of the dangers of black lung, too, which he succumbed to later in life.  Coal mining is honorable work, but tinged with sadness, as the conditions meant many of the men who did it never even reached middle age.

The strength of the acting is an asset to the story.  The two leads, Gyllenhaal and Cooper, anchor the emotional heart of the movie with their convincing work.  There is real chemistry between them as father and son.  And Laura Dern brings a sunny and sweet optimism as the teacher whoís ready to see some of her students finally break free from the bleakness of their futures.

The best moment in the movie occurs when Homer fires off his final rocket.  Like the Sputnik event earlier in the picture, it is a moment where everyone (at least in the town), wherever they are and whatever they are doing, stop and see it streak across the sky.  It is one of those beautiful moments where everything seems to be in harmony and unity, even if it is only for a few seconds.

BONUS TRIVIA:  The movieís title is an anagram for the name of Homer Hickham Jr.ís book Rocket Boys.

Video ***1/2

This DVD features both a standard and anamorphically enhanced widescreen presentation on the same side of the disc.  I only watched the widescreen, but it was quite good.  No grain, no compression evident, and good, clear, sharp images throughout.  The many sunny outdoor scenes are particularly good.  I think the only thing that holds it back from being reference quality is the fact that most of the time, colors are a bit on the drab sideÖNOT the fault of the transfer, but purposely done to create the atmosphere of a small town with nothing but a coal mine.  Which works to the benefit of the overall effect very well, but makes this a disc you wonít likely grab to show off your player.

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack is serviceable, with a good musical score, and plenty of zip from speaker to speaker as the rockets fly. The dialogue is always crisp and clear, and the dynamic range is strong from time to time, though the audio doesnít make much use of the .1 channel.

Features **1/2

There is a trailer, production notes, cast and crew bios, and a terrific ďon locationĒ special on the making of the film, that features interviews with the real Homer Hickham, Jr.

Summary:

October Sky is a real gemÖa movie that follows a tried and true formula because the real life hero followed it.  Itís charming, entertaining, and well acted.  The movie that shows us we can follow our dreams is no rarity.  But the film that actually makes us believe that we can, is.